SBTF Needs You: Rewriting our FAQs, Your Input Needed

It is a great feeling when you are down to those final pieces of a puzzle.  A triumphant buzz runs through you when you understand how something works.  Those moments when the light-bulb shines bright are some of the most satisfying.  We need your help to keep those lights burning.

We have been working hard behind the scenes to bring you the best that being a digital volunteer has to offer. New tools, new training opportunities, updated web content, and refined teams.  As a part of this, we are rewriting our Frequently Asked Questions.

The field we work in is a dynamic and changing space; for which there is no clearly defined step by step guide on how we get to the future.

We turn to you, our great team of friends and volunteers.

We invite you to please help by telling us which questions would help you, and others, most as volunteers. Lingering questions that you had but did not ask during your last deployment?  Have you been a member, but not volunteered yet? Want to learn more about a specific team or the tools we use?  Ask, ask, ask away.

Our previous Frequently Asked Questions document contains outdated questions, teams, and tools.  We will leave it live while we rewrite the new FAQ section.  The link below is to the GoogleDocument spreadsheet where you can anonymously ask the deep dark questions that you have always wondered, but never dared ask.

On the spreadsheet, we have broken down a few example questions into  suggested categories, including an ‘Other’ section.  Feel free to add more categories and as many questions as you feel relevant. We will leave the document open for a little over a week so that you have time to dig deep and remember any searing questions that you may have had when joining through now.

We are excited to collaborate with you to update this key resource.  Thank you and Happy Helping!



World Disasters Report 2013: Technology and the Future of Humanitarian Action

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The World Disasters Report 2013, just released by the International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies, examines the profound impact of technological innovations on humanitarian action, how humanitarians employ technology in new and creative ways, and what risks and opportunities may emerge as a result of technological innovations. We’re proud to say that the Standby Task Force (SBTF) is referenced in several areas of this prominent report.

“The responsible use of technology offers concrete ways to make humanitarian assistance more effective, efficient and accountable and can, in turn, directly reduce vulnerability and strengthen resilience. Finding ways for advances in technology to serve the most vulnerable is a moral imperative; a responsibility, not a choice.

World Disasters Report offers detailed discussion of many challenges in humanitarian technology which, left unaddressed, could temper the enthusiasm for such new technologies. Greater information sharing and more data collection bring risks of information misuse and compromised data security and privacy. Concerns over data protection and the security of information sources are legitimate, but the actual risk may vary and need to be carefully analysed in relation to benefits.”

To read more, access the full report here:

How AI, Twitter and Digital Volunteers are Transforming Humanitarian Disaster Response

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Great article by Katie Collins on on how the Standby Task Force, QCRI, UN OCHA, the Digital Humanitarian Network (DHN) and others worked together to use the new tool MicroMappers in response to the earthquake that took place in Pakistan on September 24th, 2013. A big thank you to our 100 volunteers that took part in the response!

“On 24 September a 7.7-magnitude earthquake struck south-west Pakistan, killing at least 300 people. The following day Patrick Meier at the Qatar Computer Research Institute (QCRI) received a call from the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA) asking him to help deal with the digital fallout — the thousands of tweets, photos and videos that were being posted on the web containing potentially valuable information about the disaster.

To help make sense of the outpouring of data, Meier mobilised two new tools he had created, but had yet to release. The first, MicroMappers is a series of microtasking apps (called Clickers), which can be used to tag the mass of online user-generated multimedia content relating to a disaster to establish its importance. OCHA also reached out to the Digital Humanitairan Network (DHN), which mobilised the Standby Volunteer Task Force (SBTF) to work with Meier’s tools. The volunteers set to work and within the first few hours, 35,000 relevant tweets had been collected.

From there the tweets were uploaded to the TweetClicker, and those with images filtered into the ImageClicker to be analysed and tagged depending on the type of information they contained — infrastructure damage and requests for help, for example — so they could be distributed to the appropriate agencies. In all, 14,000 tweets were tweets and 341 images were collected by 100 volunteers in the first 30 hours….”

Continue reading the full article here:

How AI, Twitter and digital volunteers are transforming humanitarian disaster response []

Social Media, Crisis Mapping and the New Frontier in Disaster Response

Pakistan earthquake

A new article on Global Development Professionals Network talks about MicroMappers, our new microtasking tool, and how the work by Standby Task Force volunteers during the Philippines Typhoon Pablo deployment contributed to the development of the tool.

“There is such a thing as too much information. During a disaster or crisis, Twitter and other social media can provide an instant view of conditions on the ground. This information can be more specific and timely than official data from aid agencies or relief organisations. But not all of this massive information is useful, and the sheer volume can be overwhelming. For example, there were 20m disaster-related tweets in a single week during Hurricane Sandy.

A recently launched set of innovative microtasking apps may help relief organisations make sense of social media data in these situations. MicroMappers apps help volunteers identify and map useful social media data by breaking down larger, more complicated analytical tasks into small, easily completed microtasks …..”

Continue reading the full article here:

Social Media, Crisis Mapping and the New Frontier in Disaster Response []

A Master’s Thesis on the Motivations Behind the SBTF

[Guest blog post by Evelyn Hichens, an SBTF volunteer who has just completed her Geography Msci course at the University Of Birmingham, UK. For her fourth year dissertation she decided to focus on quantifying the motivations behind the volunteers of Standby Taskforce. A powerpoint presentation of her MA thesis is available here.]

Hey Mapsters,

As you some of you may know, I’ve been carrying out research into the motivations behind the Standby Task Force for the last six months or so. I have had some great chats and have really enjoyed hearing about your experiences and motivations. I have previously done some research on crisis mapping but it mainly focused on the ‘for’ and ‘against’ of using crowdsourcing in a humanitarian setting. However, I have now realised that it is first important to understand the motivations behind the volunteers involved – without this information the movement could be prevented from moving forward. Not paying enough attention to volunteer motivations has been a criticism of previous Volunteer Geographic Information (VGI) studies.

So firstly for those who don’t know what my research is on, here is a quick overview of the methodology. I used the Volunteer Function Inventory to create a survey and to quantify the motivations of volunteers. In total 42 volunteers answered the survey – many thanks for all you who did! I also interviewed 13 volunteers, and four core members of the SBTF as well as four representatives from organisations that had previously activated the SBTF.

Just quick overview of some of my key findings…

Volunteers tend to join the SBTF as they have an interest in the field of crisis mapping/disaster response and they are curious to see what the SBTF does. The SBTF has widened the field for participation in disaster response. For the majority of volunteers I spoke to, their main motivation was their desire to help but a secondary motivation was also noted, the chance to learn new skills.

The volunteers are passionate about the work the SBTF is doing and this can be shown by one of my favourite quotes from my dissertation:

“[The SBTF] is an organisation of compassionate individuals who use a variety of skills, training and experience to provide humanitarian aid in crisis situations through online interactions. Some are professionals and others learn from scratch, but every person has an important role to play.”

Volunteers tend to exhibit similar understandings of the purpose of the SBTF whilst they do not share a clear understanding or necessarily have an awareness of the SBTF’s long term aims. Yet, somewhat controversially, this does not seem to be an issue. It has previously been mentioned that crowdsourcing initiatives require clear long term objectives and that the greater the motive alignment of the crowd, the more likely it is for volunteers to feel like a partner. Instead the key to the SBTF is ‘keeping the conversation alive’. Volunteers are attracted by the openness of the community; as the end goals are not set in stone, the volunteers have the opportunity to be part of its future. Volunteers are driving the initiative, rather than purely being an anonymous cog in a machine.

The profile analysis showed that 46 percent of the volunteers had not joined any teams. When volunteers join the SBTF they fill in a bio section, in which the question ‘What teams would you like to join?’ is filled in. However, just because volunteers have filled this in it does not mean they are a member of these teams. Volunteers who read this post I urge to to check that you have actually joined a team/s that you had filled in, as without this information the SBTF cannot have a clear understanding of its community’s skill-set.

As altruistic motivations prevail in the SBTF community, it is crucial that the volunteers are aware of what the outcome of their efforts will be and how their labours translate into helping people. During the interviews, two volunteers discussed how they required more information on the impact of the deployments to conclude whether they are actually helping people. The SBTF needs to ensure, where possible, to provide the volunteers with detailed information on the impact of their work. As well, before activating deployments, considering whether volunteer motivations will be met through their engagement. This may mean that volunteers will be less not motivated to volunteers for those deployments that are not in a crisis setting.

The SBTF answered the request of the Disaster 2.0 (2011) report for an effective interface between volunteers and traditional organisations in the field and this has been recognised and appreciated by the traditional organisations that have activated it. So far motivations for activating the SBTF have been experimental in nature, yet engagement has been positive and the SBTF are steadily becoming a valued member of the response community.

This study’s understanding of volunteer motivations should allow the SBTF to work towards enhancing volunteer retention, through both ensuring the volunteers know how they are helping people, and continuing volunteer skill development through training, simulations, and support throughout deployments. It hopes to catalyse further studies focusing on volunteer motivations in the field of crisis mapping; this field is rapidly expanding, and it is important volunteer motivations are understood so that the SBTF are aware of these and consider them in the management of the community.

Many thanks to all the volunteers that took part in the survey and to everyone I interviewed. I would be very interested to hear any of your comments so please feel free to get in contact with me:

WHO Libya Deployment: Lessons Learned and SBTF Feedback

On December 12th, 2011, Robert Colombo Llimona, a GIS Analyst
for the Vulnerability and Risk Analysis & Mapping (VRAM) 
inside the WHO Mediterranean Center for Health Risk Reduction (WMC) based in Tunisia contacted the SBTF, OSM and GISCorps to request support on a project related to the public health system in Libya. The purpose of the project was to get a final Health Facility Registry GIS layer for Libya, which would include the location type and name of the Health Facilities (HF) across the country along with their status. This was to be the starting point for providing a crucial service to the local community since the public health infrastructure was starting to get back “online” as it’s capacity was starting to increase again, which would benefit the entire community and citizens.

WHO was looking for datasets to try to compile a basic layer to start working with. Once this basic layer (which included the HF’s that were in place before the revolution and fighting) was going to be compiled, WHO could properly start their assessment of the actual public health situation in the field and identify which HF’s were still operational, which ones weren’t, and in doing so collect the statistical data to create a strategy of fast recovery for the national health system

There were already some datasets to start from:

•  Google map maker
•  WHO

Still there were some gaps in the layers and there was a need to identify and complete them.

WHO had two WHO staff already in Libya working on this specific project (collecting data, points, visiting places…) but they needed to be more precise in their approach, which is why they wanted to make sure we could gather all the existing, valid and original datasets.

The SBTF decided to start immediately a deployment and the following things where set up:

1) An application form for the volunteers to declare their availability

2) A Google spreadsheet with all the data already existing, possible sources and new sources founded by the volunteers

3) An endline survey for the volunteer to be checked on a daily bases and used to eventually change workflows and methodology according to the feedback gathered from the volunteers

The volunteers were coordinating all their efforts using a dedicated Skype Chat (standard operating procedure for SBTF deployments), and both the Skype Chat and the Application Form were shared with OSM in order not to duplicate efforts.

All the documentation necessary to inform volunteers on how to contribute to the effort was drafted and shared via the WHO Deployment Page created inside the SBTF Ning site:

The deployment run through the entire holiday period (December-January) and was paused for a couple of days to allow GIS Corps to clean and delete duplicate data  from the information found by the volunteers after the first 2 weeks of the deployment.

At the end of the deployment, when it was clear that no more information could be found on the web, the SBTF phased out of the deployment, giving way to the the second phase of the project: HOT/OSM created a web interface to allow anyone from Libya to add information missing on the health facilities founded by the volunteers, or to add new facilities not already inserted.

Of course this part of the project was particularly difficult because, as our collecgues in OSM state in their blog post on this project “We did have good contact with a number of interested Libyans, especially expat medical professionals. I think the call to participate must have gotten into the right channels. However, it was difficult to bring these folks in … being medical professionals, they’re really busy, mostly not in the same cities as us in the response, and not that familiar with mapping. They were super enthusiastic about the project, and for that I totally appreciate, and hope we can find a way to collaborate more as things develop.”

WHO has already described this project in detail in their guest  blog post here, so I will use this post to describe a bit more the SBTF’s involvement in this project and will share the comments, feedback, opinions of volunteers who participated in this novel public health deployment.

Overall the SBTF had 76 volunteers participating in the deployment, 12 of them from the OSM team, and most of those part of both SBTF and OSM networks.

The average amount of time spent daily by each SBTF volunteer on the deployment was 75 minutes, with some volunteers working 3 hours in a row and some no more than 10 minutes. In general the majority of the volunteers did around 1 hour a day.

The major problem that volunteers highlighted was related to the different spellings of the local locations and the difficulties in finding addresses on any available maps on line. This was frustrating and time consuming for volunteers – and gave our colleagues at GISCorps a lot of work vis-a-vis the data cleaning operation after the first two weeks of the deployment.

Thanks to the feedback and suggestions provided by SBTF volunteers, we were able to adapt and make changes to the deployment several times throughout the project life cycle. For example, we added a column for the phone numbers of individual facilities, another one for the web address, and another one with the status of that entry. We also added a dedicated page to compile all the useful sources found by the volunteers. This enabled others to do some cross-validation and verification.

Almost 90% of volunteers found the Skype Chat useful and a good way to ask questions, share information and learn about what others were doing and how. Some volunteers emphasized that they found the Skype Chat particularly important for the “spirit”. Being able to chat with each other while working was a definite plus and a form of ongoing encouragement.  The majority of the volunteers used the chat to get quick feedback on their questions and to get up to speed of what was most needed. Unfortunately, since the majority of the volunteers were based in the US, whom was in a different time zone, was left almost alone in the Skype Chat.

Lessons Learned:

  • The SBTF should have more coordinators in different time zones to make sure that all volunteers have a reference point;
  • The use of local volunteers needs to be increased at the earlier stages of the deployment if and where possible;
  • When working with local languages spelling issues and transliteration problems really do handicap the efforts of the volunteers to find accurate information. Guides or standard protocols needs to be created to minimize those risks;
  • Endline survey needs to become a standard protocol to make sure that all volunteers can anonymously report issues and problems on a daily bases and that the managers of the deployment gather feedbacks in a timely manner;
  • Having the activators in the skype chat with the volunteers was incredibly useful. Robert Colombo was supporting and coordinating the volunteers on a daily bases and this gave them also a very good understanding of the use of the data collected.

Meet a Mapster: Understanding Volunteer Motivations

[This is a guest blog post by Isaac Griberg, Social Media Officer at the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) and MA Social Media student at Birmingham City University]

Dear Mapsters,

First of all, kudos for all the work you guys are doing at the intersection of GIS and relief work. I believe the humanitarian community needs an injection of not only your skill set, but also your passion and dedication. In my work I often touch on topics related to the SBTF and other V&TCs. Many times I have been stunned by your neat applications and slick sites offering ways for the public to provide first responders with crisis data, but never have I understood who really ‘pulls the rope’ on the back-end. Who are you?

To answer this question I finally decided to conduct a small study within the framework of my graduate class. While most researchers in the field of crisis mapping have looked at the technology, I decided to shed some light on the volunteers themselves – you – who did the heavy lifting of initiatives like Ultimately I wanted to learn about your motivation in doing volunteer work. The findings, presented below, might not represent the entire SBTF community and should be treated as a base for further studies.

According to the study (PDF):

  • A typical SBTF volunteer is male and 32 years old. He holds, or is currently enrolled in studies leading to, a Master’s degree in computer science, development studies or international relations. He often works as expert in GIS or ICT and has some experience from public sector or non-profit environments.
  • SBTF volunteers are genuinely concerned about the people they help. To them volunteer work provides an opportunity to learn through ‘hands-on’ experience, to further one’s professional career, and to make new friends. Some seek new perspectives or self-esteem, while few seek recognition or a means to overcome guilt of being more fortunate than others.

Is this you? Please do leave a comment (or tweet me @isaacgriberg). Keep up the good work and, finally, a big THANKS to Patrick Meier and the 60 mapsters who kindly participated in the study. You guys rock.

Over & Out,